Deep Reprints

Meet the Captain

Nowhere but in 1970s Newfoundland could Geoff Stirling—hustler, mystic, comic hero—have made his strange ascent as a television tycoon. He was Captain Newfoundland.

Deep Reprints

Originally appeared in Atlantic Insight magazine, October 1980

by Amy Zierler

T

he all-night motel restaurant at mile 10 of the Trans-Canada is deserted at 2:30 a.m., except for a tall, lean figure pumping quarters into the jukebox. A bank of anemic disco lights flickers in a far corner, while the cheap red carpet, no dancers to be seen, stretches in all directions. Plaques from oil and offshore-supply companies indicate that the restaurant’s management has begun catering to the new crew of big-city sophisticates in St. John’s—the kind of people who might be looking for a serious meal in the middle of the night. The solitary patron at this hour has no need to chase after petro-dollars, however. He’s a 58-year-old broadcasting tycoon who, mainly because he bought a lot of gold at the right time, is worth at least half of what Mobil Oil Canada Ltd. made this year, more than he could spend in a dozen lifetimes.

Geoffrey William Stirling might find that amusing: He does believe in reincarnation.

“This is the only jukebox in town that has my favourite songs,” he says to no one in particular. Hunched over the machine, the collar of his black, leather-trimmed sweater turned up Elvis Presley–style, standing in pointy-toed black cowboy boots, Stirling could be no one but himself.

This is Stirling’s time of day, the thin, unstable hours when the rules change completely.

Geoff Stirling is a Newfoundlander whose parents ran a modest family restaurant in St. John’s. Geoff grew up to make a fortune, though not in the restaurant business. He bought a lot of gold when it was $36 an ounce, and now owns the Newfoundland Broadcasting Company, which operates NTV, the major private television network, and the province’s only FM-radio rock station. He owns the top-rated AM and FM English-language radio stations in Montreal, and another in Windsor, Ontario. He owns the Newfoundland Herald, a television guide and local entertainment weekly which is the latest incarnation of a feisty tabloid he started 35 years ago, and boasts the largest paid circulation of any publication in Newfoundland. He owns several homes in St. John’s and a coveted piece of waterfront on Conception Bay where he scuba-dives when he’s in the province—which isn’t very often. He’s building a retreat in New Delhi where he can be closer to the religions he’s adopted. That he doesn’t look or act the part of a megamillionaire is typical Stirling. He is, as he would hope, more than the sum of his wealth.

The fat, cheery waiter who made change for him and has just ordered his steak dinner calls out “C-6, Mr. Stirling.”

“Fantastic,” says Stirling. He hits the keys and out comes Billy Joel singing, “You may be right, I may be crazy.” Next comes Presley himself with a rock and gospel version of “America the Beautiful.” Another clue. If a man can paint a picture of himself by punching the buttons on a jukebox, Stirling is doing it.

Moonshots. Roosevelt, Kennedy, assassinations and funerals, stars and stripes. He is “absolutely, totally, passionately in love” with America.

This is Stirling’s time of day, the thin, unstable hours when the rules change completely. Until recently he rarely slept at night and often ran several cycles without stopping, and advancing years haven’t slowed him down much. To relax he spends at least ten minutes a day in a yoga headstand. He says it keeps his internal organs from growing together.

Stirling has company for supper. A photographer and a writer are with him, trying to gobble up pieces of this remarkable, powerful, exasperating man as they pick away at the enormous midnight snack he’s providing. He says he’s leaving in a few hours for parts unknown, but he won’t say where. He says he has to go work on a movie; mentioned Malibu, India, Los Angeles. The photographer flew in on an hour’s notice tonight. He had to. Stirling had phoned at 5 p.m. to say he might not be back for weeks, and I had to plead with him to let us meet him before he left. “You’re coming on pretty heavy, honey,” he said. “You’re asking me to disrupt my movie so you can get a few pictures? Even my wife doesn’t do that.”

As it turns out, he only drove to Corner Brook, and he was back in St. John’s a few days later. Maybe he had planned to leave the province but, looking back, it seems it was all part of a game we had to play. He made us jump for him, he made us wait for him, he made us need him. Then he was as kind, generous, and relaxed as any Newfoundlander. And he let us peer through the keyhole of Stirling’s magic kingdom.

“I

n the centre of India exists a temple, and you can only get there by train from New Delhi to a certain station, and then through the village, and you come to a temple with a 19-foot wall and an iron gate, right out of 50,000 years ago. Wild elephants and tigers and a psychic king there who had a kingdom of 78 million… So you have to get in the temple and up on the wall of the temple where my picture is, and turn over the picture and come back with the saying on the back to win the prize.”

This is Geoff Stirling, hustler-mystic, describing a contest called “The Search” which Apache Communications International, or one of its branches, will launch this fall. The scene is lunch at the best corner table in a waterfront restaurant, years away from the 3 a.m. steak dinner.

From the moment Stirling sits down the table becomes a three-ring circus. Stirling dictates letters, reads reports, takes messages from secretary Sheila Anstey, who is the epitome of discretion. Stirling rants to Tim Forsythe, his number-two man in Newfoundland, about the socialist conspiracy to destroy free enterprise in Canada. The table is awash with papers, news clippings, photographs, and cod tongues.

A "Captain Newfoundland" sequence from the 1980s.

When he turned NTV into Canada’s only 24-hour television station, Stirling began to experiment wildly in the thin hours. At first he and his good friend Joey Smallwood would interview one another all night. He’s been known to fill hours with tapes of licensing hearings.

“Great show last night,” he says to Forsythe over lunch. “Moon landings, all the unseen film of the moon. I used you, [St. John’s mayor] Dorothy Wyatt, then right into the Spirit of America, then something else—Franklin Roosevelt—all talking about freedom and individual liberties.”

Stirling infuriates executives at CTV—NTV is an affiliate—by playing whatever flagship network programs he pleases, at whatever time he pleases. John Crosbie once found out that Stirling had broadcast an interview the St. John’s MP had taped with CTV’s Question Period at 2:30 a.m., instead of Sunday evening when it ran in the rest of the country.

“It was outrageous but it was typical,” Crosbie says. He appeared at the next hearing on NTV operations to denounce Stirling as “dangerous” and his apparent immunity from regulatory monitoring as “scandalous.”

A bodiless being whose face is a map of the namesake island, Captain Newfoundland is descended from the divine creatures who inhabited the lost continent of Atlantis.

He’s also brought in stoned video whiz-kids from California who plugged in heavy rock behind hours of computer-generated animation. From the whiz-kids’ fun grew Captain Newfoundland, Stirling’s spiritual superhero who lives in a Herald comic strip and unscheduled NTV spots. Stirling telephones the nighttime technicians from wherever he happens to be in the world and tells them when to insert the next episode. A bodiless being whose face is a map of the namesake island, Captain Newfoundland is descended from the divine creatures who inhabited the lost continent of Atlantis. Newfoundland, the fantasy goes, is the northern tip of Atlantis. Labrador is represented by Captain Silver, a female Atlantian who neatly conquers her foes with turbulent waves of psychic energy. Captain Newfoundland comprehends the oneness of the universe. The comics later birthed Captain Canada.

What Stirling most likes to show late at night, however, are film packages about America—not the United States, but America, the idea of America. Moonshots. Roosevelt, Kennedy, assassinations and funerals, stars and stripes. He is “absolutely, totally, passionately in love” with America.

When he was 18 years old and Newfoundland was not yet Canada, Stirling left St. John’s for Halifax, where he caught a bus for Florida. He had a scholarship for law school in Tampa. (Years later, he met his second wife, Joyce, in Florida.) During the war, he worked in Washington for the American Lend-Lease office. At 26, he campaigned hard, mainly through the Sunday Herald, to bring Newfoundland into economic union with the U.S. instead of Canada. Although it had the backing of well-known businessman Ches Crosbie and a popular young broadcaster named Don Jamieson (for 20 years after, Stirling’s business partner), the option never got on the referendum ballot. Stirling still believes Newfoundland should have chosen America, and says he’d like to try again. “If we have to take Newfoundland out of confederation to avoid becoming socialist,” he says, “watch us.”

Stirling rarely consents to interviews anymore because he’s been the target of “hatchet jobs,” but he likes the fact that I grew up in the States (though I had to reassure him that while I come from a Jewish family, my parents are not necessarily socialists). He also has a big battle with CBC on his hands, one he wouldn’t mind a bit of press about.


In 1975, Stirling spent months at an ashram in India, studying under guru Swami Shyam (pictured, left). Image courtesy of the Newfoundland Herald.


NTV’s publicly supported competition is “stonewalling,” says Stirling, on an eight-month-old order to stop selling local advertising in Newfoundland. CBC does not want to give up its commercial revenue here, as the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has told it to, and after pushing for 10 years on the matter, Stirling says he’ll stop local production entirely if something doesn’t happen soon. At the very least he threatens to take CBC to the Supreme Court of Canada for unfair trade practices. “My own employees’ taxes,” he argues, “are subsidizing a company which will put us out of business.” He intensified an already drawn-out labour dispute with NTV employees by claiming their pay could only go up if CBC left local commercials to private stations which, in Newfoundland, means Stirling.

“I love a good fight,” he says.

S

tirling is fighting this battle with the same gusto that took him to Washington 30 years ago to sing the praises of Newfoundland to U.S. senators. He’s using his media power the same way. The day Stirling agreed to talk to me, a five-minute interview with NTV general Tim Forsythe on the CBC problem was the top story on NTV’s evening news. It dwarfed everything else on the newscast, including a long report from the Middle East. The same week, NTV twice slotted in a half-hour with Stirling on the CBC problem.

Stirling doesn’t see this battle as a tug of war with a stubborn, top-heavy crown corporation. This is an ideological struggle between capitalism and socialism, individual freedom and government regulation, the competitive spirit and social insurance. The socialists have infiltrated CBC, he cries, from foreign correspondents right up to the president’s office. And CBC is just one link in a treacherous chain of powers determined to undermine all that is good and decent in the world. Like his comic-book fantasies, Stirling’s perceptions are on an American scale—large and bold and egocentric.

“If we have to take Newfoundland out of confederation to avoid becoming socialist,” he says, “watch us.”

At lunch, Stirling’s mind leaps from business to other planes. “The 83 million unborn children in the world refused to be born. They all hooked up psychically. They don’t want to come into the world because our pygmy minds haven’t come up with a new way to create employment except, as Hitler did, with armaments. We can’t figure out that fun and a three-day week and all of those elements are laying before us,” he concludes. “We’re victims of our own lack of imagination.”‎‎

It’s peculiar that Stirling fears communism (he uses “communism” and “socialism” interchangeably) so fiercely, since he’s as much of an idealist as Marx. Most people, he says, quoting Thoreau, lead lives of quiet desperation. Stirling, the visionary, insists there must be more, but hurtling himself into his fantastic dreams, he’s apt to scrape his shins on the ragged edges of this world.

In 1974, Stirling, Joey Smallwood, and filmmaker Michael Rubbo travelled to Cuba in an attempt to get Fidel Castro to appear in a film. The trip was documented in the National Film Board's "Waiting for Fidel."

The Search contest may come to pass or, like many of Stirling’s schemes, it may not. It doesn’t really matter. The point is that he thought of it, and that’s it’s an idea which perfectly pairs his instinct for making money with his craving for mystery.

“T

here is in Geoff a very deep and broad”—Joey Smallwood searches for a word—“religiosity.” The Stirling family line has spawned an unusual number of prominent Anglican churchmen, Smallwood notes. “That’s the ancestral strain that runs through him and qualifies and colours all else.” But Stirling discovered his religiosity in Indian and Eastern mysticism, and in the American counterculture. “That’s just a way a basic instinct expresses itself,” Smallwood says. “If you don’t understand that, you don’t understand Geoff Stirling.”

Smallwood does. It didn’t take long, once the Confederation battle was over, for the former opponents to smooth over their differences, especially when it came to the cause of advancing broadcasting in the province. Stirling and Smallwood formed a Newfoundland triumvirate in the early years of Confederation, part of a small group who grasped the social and economic opportunities of the new situation and made them pay off, each in his own way, but not without a fair bit of mutual backsratching.

Don Jamieson and Stirling split their assets only a few years ago; Jamieson got the AM radio and Stirling the television. Smallwood still appears frequently on NTV. He and Stirling evean became political partners when Smallwood revived the splinter Liberal Reform party during the 1975 provincial election. Stirling, the party financier, polled an impressive second against then-prreemier Frank Moores. Today Smallwood can speak personally of Stirling’s “extraordinary generosity.” He’s backing many of his projects, including the massive, in-progress Encyclopedia of Newfoundland. When the house Smallwood rents as an office came up for sale recently, Stirling bought it for him. Smallwood also remembers the young man who once bought 60 tons of newsprint from Smallwood’s own collapsed weekly to start his own paper. His energy was impressive, if not his goal: Stirling only seemed to be after money then.


Stirling (right) with John Lennon and Yoko Ono in London, in 1969. Allegedly, Stirling contacted the pair via telex and spent two days with them, conducting interviews and discussing how their message of peace could be brought to Canada via radio. Image courtesy of the Newfoundland Herald.


He was after money, and the freedom it brings, but if that was an ordinary ambition, there was nothing ordinary about the way he pursued it, or the kind of freedom he wanted. He gave up law school to peddle alligator skins in Honduras, but learned he didn’t like killing creatures for a living. He made his little Newfoundland paper pay from the start, when everyone said it couldn’t last. He wrote most of the weekly himself at first and he’d often write several issues at a time, then catch the next plane out of Gander headed east or south. Before he and Jamieson opened their first radio station, they drove down the U.S. coast to Florida listening to the car radio all the way. They learned a lot about American hard-sell broadcasting and brought it back to Newfoundland. Four years later they got the province’s first television license. This time Stirling went straight to CBS-TV in New York and took a two-year television course in one month. The Newfoundlanders had a comfortable monopoly for seven years; CBC wasn’t allowed to set up in Newfoundland until 1962.

Stirling’s forays into Central Canada broke new ground, too. And, as his interest in other lands grew, he used the money he made from broadcasting to travel and return with swamis and LSD therapists to spice up his stations.

Suddenly, a friend remembers, Stirling was not just well-off but fabulously wealthy. There’s a story that in the late ’60s he disappeared into the mountains of Tibet and meditated with a wise man. The message he got was “buy gold.” Stirling says it’s not true. It was a man in Tahiti who sold gold figurines and he said, “Watch it rise.” Stirling listened, and watched.

There’s a story that in the late ’60s he disappeared into the mountains of Tibet and meditated with a wise man. The message he got was “buy gold.”

Talk of his wealth irritates him though. “You use gold as credit, you use it to expand, to experiment,” he says. “There’s no sense piling up possessions like a retarded child.” As we get older we consolidate, we’re no longer operating to survive. It becomes more of a search for meaning.”

There are a lot of stories about Stirling which travel Newfoundland: He stripped to the waist on television one night during a heated debate. He leaves tape-recorded message for his employees. He had liquid gold shot into his hip to cure rheumatoid arthritis, which might have crippled him for life. They’re all true. There are other stories, perhaps apocryphal but maybe possible.

Stirling is a man of myths, so it’s right that people create myths around him. He’s built himself a gigantic crazy-quilt universe of mythic proportions, he can travel unencumbered from Atlantis to Newfoundland to a hidden temple where his own face unlocks a saying that wins a prize. The words on the back of the picture say, “Geoff Stirling is Captain Newfoundland.”

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